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  • Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars by Ayanna Thompson
  • Deb Streusand
SHAKESPEARE IN THE THEATRE: PETER SELLARS. By Ayanna Thompson. Shakespeare in the Theatre series. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018; pp. 208.

Arden Shakespeare’s Shakespeare in the Theatre series explores the relationships between Shakespeare’s works and key artists and companies associated with them, blending biography and history with academic theatre criticism. This unique series promotes monographs with multiple interlocking lines of argument rather than a single thesis. Ayanna Thompson’s recent contribution, a thoughtfully constructed engagement with the work of the American director Peter Sellars, is a particularly successful example of this approach.

Thompson deftly interlaces several related claims as she lays out a clear but complex vision of what Sellars contributes to Shakespeare and Shakespeare to Sellars. The most intriguing arises from a speculation: What if Sellars, like Peter Brook and other avant-garde directors, had had access to a consistent company of actors and a regular audience? Without straying too far into the hypothetical, Thompson makes a persuasive case that certain Sellars productions could have escaped critical disdain if the director had been able to train his actors and audience in his approach. Such training would have enhanced audiences’ appreciation of Sellars’s work, which requires processing over time to have its full impact.

This argument is bolstered by Thompson’s claim that Sellars’s work is intended to produce long-term reflection leading to political action, rather than to present something easily digested during the performance. This desire to challenge the audience sometimes renders his work less immediately “accessible,” which critics have often assumed is a sign of elitism or even hostility to spectators. Thompson elucidates the resulting paradox: the artistic values that lead to critical assumptions of snobbish scorn from a self-indulgent director are, in fact, deeply democratic. Sellars’s directorial approach is profoundly collaborative, removing interpretive authority from Shakespeare or himself to vest it in his actors, designers, and audience. As Thompson convincingly argues, however, his lack of a permanent company has thwarted this aim of shaping spectators into active participants in the democratic process. One closes the book with a rather wistful feeling about living in an alternate universe in which he had one.

An introduction outlining Sellars’s theatrical career lays out these threads: his desire to create theatre that audiences reflect on over time, a false critical perception that his work is inaccessible, and his challenges to traditional notions of authority and authorship. The first chapter examines Sellars’s relationships with his artistic influences. Thompson argues that despite strong avant-garde connections his direction is not postmodern, because his productions are “earnest explorations of the multivocal” rather than fragmented pastiche (27). By bringing a diverse range of voices into a production designed to extend beyond the actual performance, he seeks to create political and spiritual transformation in his audience. [End Page 261]

Chapter 2 shows why Sellars has often chosen Shakespeare’s plays in his pursuit of this goal. Shakespeare helps him to challenge his audience to think deeply about our world because the playwright “uncovers the epic moments” in life (40). His plays portray the shared human experience of heightened emotion during intense events, allowing audiences to connect these works—and Sellars’s interpretations of them—with their own lives. Sel-lars also perceives a Shakespearean play not as a polished, unified, and untouchable whole, but as a jagged mixture that purposefully avoids smoothing away life’s contradictions. This sense of the plays licenses a collaborative process that reassigns the authority to create meaning away from author and director and toward spectators.

The third chapter addresses nontraditional casting, which first drew Thompson—a scholar of Shakespeare and race, editor of the collection Colorblind Shakespeare (2006)—to Sellars’s work. Sellars, Thompson argues, is consistently seeking to open a dialogue about race that theatre critics have refused to engage in. She analyzes the provocatively color-conscious casting of his Othello (2009) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014). For the former, Sellars chose actors of color for all but two roles, with a Latino actor as Othello and a Black actor playing the Duke to resemble President Obama...


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pp. 261-262
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